Is too much screen time damaging my kid?

This month’s column in BayState Parent encourages parents to rethink screen time for children.

recent 60 Minutes segment reports on a landmark study of more than 11,000 kids to gauge the effect screen time is having on their brains. Initial brain scans from the study conclude that children who spend more than seven hours a day on screens experience premature thinning of the cortex. The report also notes that younger children who have more than two hours of screen time a day receive lower scores on tests focused on thinking and language skills.

With devices everywhere now, how can parents place acceptable limits on screen time? Check out my CyberSavvy Mom column for advice.


Tips for creating a family digital contract

When introducing electronics into a child’s life, appropriate device use doesn’t just happen. Kids need coaching and rules to understand how to use smartphones, tablets and computers in a healthy manner that works for you and your kids.

That’s where a digital contract comes in to help. It is an agreement between you and your child/children on what is considered appropriate electronic use in your home. Details will vary by family, but could include, for example, amount of time on the computer, iPad or iPhones, allowable Websites and apps, allowable locations for using devices.

Please read this guidance for creating a digital contract for your family in this story on BayState Parent.

Talking to kids about device use

Technology is a constant in many kids’ lives today, and that presents both gifts and challenges. We all want our kids to be healthy, stay active and refrain from too much device use. How can you engage in a conversation with your kids and get their attention?

Author Laurie Work says drop the nagging, and engage in a conversation about the risks of device overuse. Explain to them the “why” in the importance of getting space from devices.

Read more about Wolk’s advice for developing rules and roadmaps for device use in this BayState Parent article.

The skinny on screen time: How much is too much?

Now that the CyberSavvy Family is back into the swing of the school year, it means afternoons and evenings are filled with sports practices and games, hanging out with friends after school, homework and meal prep, and then some TV and time spent on devices during what little bit of the day we have left. This is causing CyberSavvyKid #1 (CSK1) to take part in a lot of handwringing and complaining on many days when he feels he hasn’t been allowed enough time on his iPod. CSK1 ADORES his iPod and has basically traded in old habits of watching NickJr. and Disney for almost exclusively watching YouTube videos for gaming tips and tricks.

CyberSavvyDad and I didn’t put a lot of limits on how much time CSK1 was spending on his iPod during the summer. He was busy all day with summer camps and having fun, so the hour or two in the evening on a device didn’t seem like a big deal after a long day of outdoor play.  Our rules for safe online viewing remain the same: We insist CSK1 use his device in a family area. We check in regularly on what he is viewing and doing. We check the history on occasion and make it clear to CSK that we may do this at anytime.

But as the school year schedule has kicked back in, gone are the lazy days of largely unrestricted summer iPod use, and I find myself pondering: How much screen time is too much during the school week? Or any day of the week?

An article published yesterday in the New York Times notes that the late Steve Jobs, Apple’s founding genius and king of device innovation, was, in fact, a “low tech parent” according to the article. Jobs allegedly told the author of the article that he and his wife “limit the amount of technology our kids use at home.”  The article then went on to point to several CEOs working for high tech companies who employ a similar mindset inside their homes.

The risks of too much screen time – both for TV and device screens – have been widely discussed for many years. They include obesity and sleep disturbance.  Some new research even suggests screen time is negatively impacting our children’s ability to recognize human emotion.

On the other hand, reducing screen time becomes increasingly difficult with each year, especially as children age and are actually expected to use devices for research and other educational endeavors as part of their homework.   Also, kids who live in households where Mom and Dad regularly have their heads buried in an iPhone or laptop will likely be reluctant to head off to read a book when a parent points out they are “spending too much time on that thing” and then resumes scrolling their Twitter or Facebook feed immediately after.

While the answer to the question “How much screen time is too much?” will vary from family to family, I think we can all agree that the more time we spend talking and engaging with each other, or moving our bodies with play and sport, or getting caught up in a great book, is undeniably more healthy and stimulating for our brains than zoning out on YouTube (sorry CSK1).

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute offers these tips for reducing your child’s screen time:

Talk to Your Family

Explain to your kids that it’s important to sit less and move more in order to stay at a healthy weight. Tell them they’ll also have more energy, and it will help them develop and/or perfect new skills, such as riding a bike or shooting hoops, that could lead to more fun with friends. Tell them you’ll do the same.

Set a Good Example

You need to be a good role model and limit your screen time to no more than two hours per day, too.  If your kids see you following your own rules, then they’ll be more likely to do the same.

Log Screen Time vs. Active Time

Start tracking how much time your family spends in front of a screen, including things like TV- and DVD-watching, playing video games, and using the computer for something other than school or work. Then take a look at how much physical activity they get. That way you’ll get a sense of what changes need to be made

Make Screen Time = Active Time

When you do spend time in front of the screen, do something active. Stretch, do yoga and/or lift weights. Or, challenge the family to see who can do the most push-ups, jumping jacks, or leg lifts during TV commercial breaks.

Set Screen Time Limits

Create a house rule that limits screen time to two hours every day. More importantly,enforce the rule.

Create Screen-free Bedrooms

Don’t put a TV or computer in your child’s bedroom. Kids who have TVs in their room tend to watch about 1.5 hours more TV a day than those that don’t. Plus, it keeps them in their room instead of spending time with the rest of the family.

Make Meal Time = Family Time

Turn off the TV during meals. Better yet, remove the TV from the eating area if you have one there. Family meals are a good time to talk to each other. Research shows that families who eat together tend to eat more nutritious meals. Make eating together a priority and schedule family meals at least two to three times a week.

Provide Other Options

Watching TV can become a habit, making it easy to forget what else is out there. Give your kids ideas and/or alternatives, such as playing outside, getting a new hobby, or learning a sport. See more tips for getting physically active.

Don’t Use TV Time as Reward or Punishment

Practices like this make TV seem even more important to children.

Understand TV Ads & Placements

Seeing snack foods, candy, soda, and fast food on television affects all of us, especially kids. Help your child understand that because it’s on TV—or your favorite TV characters/actors eat or drink it—doesn’t mean a food or drink is good for you.  Get your kids to think about why their favorite cartoon character is trying to get them to eat a certain brand of breakfast cereal.



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